I have been a Mental Health First Aid Trainer for a little longer than five years now, having trained over 900 Mental Health First Aiders. Through that time, I have worked in HE Crisis Mental Health Support, Victim Support, Domestic Abuse & Sexual Exploitation Taskforces and for NHS Scotland Public Health. To this day, irrespective of experience I am still gobsmacked by the fact that:
- There were 6,507 deaths by suicide in the UK in 2018. For context 1,770 people died on the UK Road Network in 2018.
- Of those 6,507 deaths, 730 were for people aged under 25.
- Men account for three quarters of that figure in 2018.
- Internationally, someone will die by suicide every forty seconds.
I don't know if you find these numbers shocking, from a policing perspective I spent more time dealing with people in distress than I ever did with road traffic collisions, but the media attention the latter got was disproportionate.
So often in a work environment, I feel, we present a certain version of ourselves and allow our insecurities about our ability in comparison to the next person to take hold of us. Over time this can lead to a deterioration in our mental health and self esteem. Whilst there are a cacophony of reasons we can feel suicidal, it is an easier road to slip on to than some may think.
I can empathise, as a "veteran" of suicide attempts (three to date), it is a uniquely dark place where the ending of your life at points can seem like the only logical and rational solution to the overwhelming corner you feel backed in to. Further, as an onlooker to seeing someone spiral you can feel powerless and terrified what happens if you get involved.
The reality, however, is that you do not need to be a Nurse, Doctor, Police Officer, Counsellor or Psychologist to have a positive impact on someone’s mental health and state of mind. Indeed, on two of my occasions I was working with the above team of people and no one recognised my spiral. You as a friend or colleague have power by virtue of your conversational skills; passion for people and public service; insights; interests and knowledge of your colleagues to make a difference. I have tried (although wordy emails are a specialty of mine - apologies!) to summarise my five key reflections below:
- Have open and honest conversations, they save lives – the emotional relief from having a conversation is unbelievable, getting something off your shoulders (whatever it is) can remove an unwieldy burden and help clear your head. It also helps to fight the taboo of mental health that still exists today.
- If you are unsure or concerned, ask – I think it is a testament of a good listener if they ask questions and clarify to check that they are following what you are trying to say. I also think people often have an inkling that there is something awry, but can be reticent to ask as they don’t want to embarrass themselves. I have never come across someone who has damaged their relationship with someone because they have taken time to check in with them.
- Be prepared to hear the answer – it can be very challenging when you have had a conversation with someone and they ask a question, only to withdraw (sometimes physically) from the topic at hand. It can perpetuate some of the negative thinking and concern that surrounds having that conversation. This doesn’t mean not recognising an issue or talking about it. One of my best colleagues was a woman who was kind and empathetic but said she wasn’t comfortable having a conversation about suicide. She offered to come with me to my first counselling appointment and wait in the waiting room. Her support in helping me overcome my fear of a ‘professional’ was invaluable.
- Actively listen – pay attention to your non verbal cues (e.g. checking your watch), maintain a non creepy amount of eye contact, empathise with the individual as well as simply listening to what they say. It creates an environment where people feel more prepared to converse about what is on their mind.
- Know alternative avenues of support – we are all only human and there is only so much we can do, knowing where you can access support for yourself and signpost others is a great skill and resource. It is useful to take a moment and become more aware of some of the services on offer through the workplace and outwith so that you can champion them and use them if you ever feel the need to.
Finally - look after yourselves! It can be emotionally very draining to support someone who is feeling suicidal or unwell. Make sure to use your networks to support yourself through that process.